Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Obama the Realist?

by Elliott Abrams
March 3, 2014


In the current issue of Politico, Fred Kaplan argues that President Obama is the consummate realist in foreign policy.  Politico asked me to comment, and my response can be found here, entitled “Obama the Ideologue.”

I argue there that Kaplan has it all wrong:

Obama emerges as an ideologue—not a realist. His policies have weakened America’s sway in the world, as our Arab and Israeli friends in the Middle East—and more, recently, the Russians—are all saying quite publicly. The “pivot to Asia” has no substance. Our military power is being deliberately reduced. While China and Russia seem to have growing influence, ours is diminishing. Relations between Obama and our closest allies (from Japan to Britain to Israel, for a few examples) are frosty at best. All this seems to be the goal of Obama policy, not an unexpected and unwanted byproduct. His is the early Jimmy Carter view (before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan), basically the George McGovern take on America’s role in the world: We’re a bully, we push people around and that’s got to stop. We need to “engage” and “reset” instead; we need to do less.
That’s not realism, and it can be called pursuit of our national interest only if you believe that having diminished power and influence is good for us—as Obama apparently does.

In The Weekly Standard today I discuss the President’s remarkable interview with Jeff Goldberg of Bloomberg. The full interview bears a close reading, for it reveals a lot about Mr. Obama’s view of himself and of foreign policy–and none of it is encouraging.

Here’s an excerpt:

When it comes to Iran, Obama shows an attitude that can only be described as solipsistic: what’s in his mind is reality. And any other reality is just plain silly. Here is the key exchange:

GOLDBERG: So just to be clear: You don’t believe the Iranian leadership now thinks that your “all options are on the table” threat as it relates to their nuclear program — you don’t think that they have stopped taking that seriously?

OBAMA: I know they take it seriously.

GOLDBERG: How do you know they take it seriously?

OBAMA: We have a high degree of confidence that when they look at 35,000 U.S. military personnel in the region that are engaged in constant training exercises under the direction of a president who already has shown himself willing to take military action in the past, that they should take my statements seriously. And the American people should as well, and the Israelis should as well, and the Saudis should as well….

GOLDBERG: So why are the Sunnis so nervous about you?

OBAMA: Well, I don’t think this is personal. I think that there are shifts that are taking place in the region that have caught a lot of them off guard. I think change is always scary.

It’s pretty obvious to all analysts that Iran does not fear an American military strike much these days, especially after Mr. Obama’s failure to act in Syria last summer. But Obama denies it, referring to himself in the third person as someone “who has shown himself willing to take military action.” Drones, sure; a quick raid as well. But in Libya and Syria, he showed himself extremely reluctant to take military action. Remember “leading from behind?” If he genuinely thinks he is viewed as a scary guy with his finger near the trigger, we all have a problem.

Goldberg pushes him, asking why (as is obvious) no one in the Gulf believes Obama. “I don’t think it is personal,” says the president; the problem is them, not him, and his analysis is therapeutic: change is always scary, and they are having trouble catching up with it.  But talk with Gulf Arabs and one finds quickly that it is in fact quite personal: they don’t trust Mr. Obama. They believe his handling of Iran and Syria and for that matter of Russia have made the world a more dangerous place.


The full text is here.

Post a Comment 9 Comments

  • Posted by Lily

    Thank you Mr Abrams for that excellent article in the Weekly Standard. Obama bullies those who are susceptible to bullying, and give a pass to those who are implacable. The latter policy conveniently masks his own deficiencies.

    Would you agree that obama’s promise of ‘flexibility’ to the Russians, after his second election, contributed to Putin’s resolve on Ukraine?

  • Posted by Elliott Abrams

    Yes, I do agree that that comment belongs on the list of moves (led by backing away from the red line on Syria) that have contributed to Putin’s attitude toward the United States and his foreign policy decisions.

  • Posted by ah

    Here we go again – It would be nice someday Mr. Abrams if you took a nice long look in the mirror and recognized that it was you and your administration which has irreversibly diminished US power and influence in the world. The failure of your chimerical democratization projects in Iraq and Afghanistan were what emboldened Iran in the first place, and left have the region as a hotbed of extremism, poverty, war and militancy.

    It was the lack of realism in your administration which has very clearly left the US in its diminished position today.

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    Obama has decided on a “pivot to Asia” because he’s made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t understand Europe or the Middle East . I have news for him … he doesn’t understand Asia either !

  • Posted by Lily


    While your account must be very comforting to you, there is the little matter of chronology to consider. You say that the previous administration left the region “as a hotbed of extremism, poverty, war and militancy”.

    Let’s see what actually happened before the wars in Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq in 2003:

    1998: attacks against US embassies in East Africa
    2000: attack against USS Cole
    2001: attack against New York and Washington

    1. Are you sure your claim about the chronology of extremism and militancy holds? Did America start a war, or was war declared — specifically so — by bin laden as far back as 1998? As far as I remember, war was declared on the West, and the West was, and continued to be, oblivious to it for a number of years.
    2. As for poverty, don’t you wonder what the potentates in the Gulf do with all their easily-obtained petrodollars? Is the previous administration to blame for the kleptocratic tendencies of the aforementioned potentates?

    You can blame the previous administration for many things, but the claims you chose have no substance.

  • Posted by Lily

    Dean Smallwood,

    Before he was first elected, the incumbent declared himself to be a “citizen of the world”. Such an identity was designed to diminish America’s international standing; of course it also helps to mask his inadequacies.
    Both America and the rest of the world are paying a heavy price today for the electoral blunders, and America’s supporters abroad despair. There appears to be no opposition strong enough to stop the “citizen of the world” in his tracks — which would at least make the rest of his second term more palatable.

  • Posted by ah


    You seem to lack any understanding of the connections between the events you list and those which I had referred to previously.

    First, Iraq had no role in any of the 3 events you mentioned. So that removes any link to your timeline.

    Second, while I agree with you that those events are connected to Bin Laden, the issue is not that we went to war with Afghanistan. Which I agree, was justified based on the harboring of Bin Laden. I take issue with Abrams’ and his administrations utter failure in Afghanistan, as instead of actually putting the required efforts and planning in to the process, they instead went off chasing fantasies in Iraq… which destroyed Iraq, destroyed Afghanistan by neglect, and gave Iran free rein across the region.

  • Posted by Lily


    I do understand what you said, but you missed my point: the region is indeed a “hotbed of extremism, poverty, war and militancy”, but independently of what anyone else does or refrains from doing — as the timeline illustrates. It is a mistake to view Mideastern peoples as passive beings. They made the region what it is. Please look at the UN’s Arab Human Development Reports.

    As for the US failure in Afghanistan — a country so deeply divided along tribal/sectarian/ethnic/gender lines cannot be fixed. No amount of effort or planning stood a chance of a lasting effect. That war should have been confined to aerial targeting alone.

    No, you cannot accuse America of destroying Iraq. The country was never a coherent whole, since it was constructed by forcing together three distinct Ottoman provinces with different peoples who lack a ‘live and let live ethos’. By 2003, the country’s infrastructure had crumbled, and the sectarian divisions were ripe for an explosion. Even if America had not attacked, Iraq was a Syria ‘waiting to happen’. The invasion was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Iraq to become a well-governed, successful state. The Administration erred, however, in believing that the people were sufficiently advanced to take advantage of the opportunity.

    I agree with your final criticism, though, that Iran was effectively given free rein across the region. It was that aspect of the wars that was neglected and mismanaged.

    America will never be appreciated by malcontents abroad. Superpowers never are. But as the sole force for good, America should be feared — even without military action. After the example of Iraq, it was merely the fear of an American invasion that prompted Gaddafi to give up his nuclear toys. Imagine today’s Libya with such materiel in place.

  • Posted by EMT

    Lily, I agree with you. Alas, it is Obama’s philosophy that believes knowing everything better than anyone.

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